“Eat This Book” comes as a second instalment of a projected five volume series on Spiritual Theology by Eugene Peterson. The series is considered to be Peterson’s magna opus on the subject gained from years of experience gleaning from his writings, pastoring vocation and teaching on the subject in various seminaries namely Regent College.
The book is divided into three parts in which Peterson leads the reader into a journey of rediscovering the art of reading the bible on which he highlights the ancient practice of lectio divina which is a Latin term for spiritual reading. Many might find it as a foreign designation for reading the bible but here in the book Peterson seeks to build bridges for a rediscovery of a lost practice that the church urgently needs. Urgent because, the state of biblical interest is on a low in these modern times and interestingly so because of ways in how we approach the bible; mainly in how we read it.
The first part of Peterson’s book deals with his explanation of the metaphor he uses; ‘eat this book’, “as a way of focusing on and clarifying what it means to have these Holy Scriptures and how the holy community has learned to eat them, receive them in a way that forms us into Christians”. Peterson contends that scripture, its authority, has been hijacked by the overemphasis on the soul which he explains that there is an “enormous interest these days in the soul.” It is a good sign but this sole fascination “leaves us without a text that shapes these souls,” Peterson further contends.
The first section gives us an understanding that the scriptures have a revelatory purpose and that is to reveal to us God. God revealed in trinity at its core represents a pulse of a personal being engaging us in conversation through our reading of scripture, to know and respond to him. Revelation for Peterson is not reading stacked up facts that merely informs but a reading that forms lives as we respond to God letting us in on who he is and our coming to know him a people who bear his image. But the tendency that we have has always been to read scripture by depersonalizing it of God and replacing the holy trinity with a “replacement trinity” as Peterson calls it which solely focuses on the authority of the self over against the text and uses the text as a basis for its own needs
The second section deals with understanding scripture as way of forming our lives in which we are shaped and conformed to. This vision is made possible focusing on the life of Jesus which we find in scripture in story form. “Story is,” according to Peterson, “the primary verbal means of bringing God’s word to us.” Stories do not merely tell but has the capacity that “invites our participation.” The invitation for participation is no prerequisite to unintelligent bearings but the task of immersing ourselves in scripture requires us to appreciate details. We need to focus on “the way it is said (form) and what is said (content),” which in its larger corpus is focusing on context. The bible, the combination of many parts is coherently telling a unified story which is God; being the “larger context of the plot.” Attention needs also to focus on sentence, which largely steers us to the realm of exegesis. Peterson explains that exegesis is the simple act of “noticing and responding adequately (which is not simple!) to the demands that words make on us.” This section calls us to be attentive as we immerse ourselves in the story that invites us to conform to its vision which is the life of Jesus.
The third section’s focus lies solely on the text as a cultivation of our understanding to make us better followers. The bible with this understanding directs our experiences to its authority and becomes the sole critique of our ways. How this is done is what Peterson identifies as having a “hermeneutics of adoration” which cultivates the combined tenets of exploration and experience. Liturgy becomes the context of how this is done which is a form that allows us to live out imaginatively the scriptures which we read.
The three sections above which Peterson presents for us to read explores the personal leanings of scripture which God communicates to us in language. The ideas presented are not new but somewhere along the coast of time become forgotten leanings that the church has somehow left in a corner. Scripture as Peterson argues in the first part calls for us to respond to what God has revealed about himself. It requires us to cultivate trust when reading and not to stop there but to be changed internally and changed in how we act also as well. This is reading scripture with the intention of deconstructing ourselves to be conformed into what God wants for us to be. This is an urgent direction to where we have to shift our attentions to in understanding scripture. Peterson’s formative vision of scripture in the first part becomes the foundation to which draws us to how we are going to do just that; the task of how scripture is read.
In the second part of the book Peterson starts the cultivating ground on how reading scripture is done in the motive of “Eat This Book” which is called lectio divina. It is explained as the task of regaining the living reality of God’s voice being spoken which we have now as words written on paper. Lectio divina is divided into four sections which Peterson spends time to explain individually. The four elements explained as lectio, the task of reading the text; meditatio, the task of meditating the text; oratio, the task of praying the text and contemplatio, the task of living the text. Although he does so the four elements are not to be looked upon as done in sequence but they have a coherent and interpenetrative bonding relationship.
Many might connect at a first glance the sentence lectio divina as a mystical way of approaching scripture. I for one thought of it this way from time to time. But clarity has made its way in the form of Peterson’s introduction of its elements to us in the book. I found Peterson’s introduction of lectio divina and his explanation of its four elements refreshing. It invites a way of reading that involves attentive listening to the text, immersing in its depth and with a direction of living it. I think on a personal level, I understood lectio divina as only a meditative practice but Peterson has shown that it is more than that. It is a reading that takes scripture for what it is, God’s communicative voice to be listened to attentively and obeyed. Peterson reminds us that it is not a “methodological technique” but a reading that we cultivate by habit which reminds us that all reading of scripture should be down to earth and something which we work hard on.
The third part of Peterson’s book takes an unexpected turn. In it he writes about his philosophy on translation and how the process had downplayed in his own translation work on the Message. Peterson covers a vast scope here in where he mixes historical development of translations of the Hebrew text to Greek and then to English. Translation at its core has to do with making sense of things, according to Peterson. With that even the Greek in which the New Testament writers used was that of common language people used on the streets. This is an amazing thing to note, that God would value communication that is understandable than settle for merely eloquent speech that flies over our heads. I have no problems with what Peterson presents here. I figure, although some may argue that the sole objectivity of just making things understandable make the scriptures lose their reverence is quite absurd namely because communication has to be understandable to convey meaning. Peterson does not overemphasize this as he mentions that the Hebrew, although their bible was steeped in the culture of the Canaanites there were some aspects which it discarded. This to my contention retained the sacredness of the text.
I found the book a gem especially in how Peterson captivates the reader necessary excitement to come to the text and read with anticipation and careful attention. It does not argue much on scriptures authority and present verses to solidify its argument. Peterson rather focuses on a way of reading the bible that puts trust in the text as God’s voice which we experience personally and stress the importance of the text for life change.
If you’re looking for a book on ways to read the bible I would heartily recommend this one.